It's not every day that the former editor-in-chief of one of the world's biggest fashion magazines makes an appearance in Sharjah. So you can imagine our surprise to see Alexandra Shulman's name on the list of speakers for last month's Sharjah International Book Fair. The ex-editor of British Vogue, who has been shrouded in controversy since stepping down earlier this year, was in town to promote her third and latest book, Inside Vogue: My Diary Of Vogue's 100th Year.
In the ever-evolving world of fashion, only a handful of people wield any real power, and Shulman was undoubtedly one of them. Having been with the magazine for an astonishing 25 years, Shulman can rightly lay claim to having influenced the fashion views of an entire generation.
She began her career at Tatler in 1982, before moving to The Sunday Telegraph and then British Vogue as features editor. She left the title to take on the role of editor at GQ, before returning to Vogue as editor-in-chief in 1992, where she remained in control until announcing her departure in January this year. At the helm during Vogue's historic centenary celebrations, Shulman and her team were trailed by a BBC documentary team for a year, and she penned a book about the experience.
Unfortunately, Shulman's visit to Sharjah comes in the wake of a very public spat with her successor at Vogue, Edward Enninful, who is a well-connected and well-regarded stylist, but has no prior editorial experience.
In October, Shulman published a column titled “What makes a great magazine editor” on Business of Fashion, seemingly criticising Enninful’s suitability for the role. Among her many strongly worded opinions was the following: “It’s certainly not a job for someone who doesn’t wish to put in the hours, and thinks that the main part of their job is being photographed in a series of designer clothes with a roster of famous friends.” Ouch.
With that as a somewhat awkward backdrop, I drive to Sharjah to meet Shulman. With limited time to spend with her, I am torn between wanting to know more about the feud and not wanting to waste an opportunity to quiz the woman who so shaped my own fashion education. Erudite, composed and well informed, Shulman is a human encyclopedia of fashion, and on first-name terms with most of the industry’s most influential figures. She is also, I discover, charming, witty and entirely pleasant; if she does have an acerbic streak, she holds it in check.
Having led Vogue for 25 years, Shulman shaped the title to align with her personal views on various topics. She once declared that Vogue never published diets and "never published things on cosmetic surgery". Shulman always preferred to champion so-called real women and an acceptance of all body shapes.
She famously called out fashion designers for their insistence on making sample clothes in ever-shrinking sizes – essentially forcing magazines like Vogue to select models who fitted into the clothes, rather than the girls they actually wanted. She also endured personal digs for her refusal to conform to the stylised Miranda Priestly-esque (The Devil Wears Prada) ideal of what a fashion editor should look and be like, and has been vocal about her dislike of the pressure put on women to submit to cosmetic surgery.
"It is a personal belief I have that we should not be encouraging people to feel that they need to alter the way they are. I don't think it's wrong for a magazine to run stories on who is the best cosmetic surgeon, it's just that I chose to have the minimum we could, while making sure readers felt they were getting current information. I mean, if you want to go on a diet you can get the information somewhere else; you don't need to go to Vogue," she tells me.
Seemingly immune to the irony of a magazine editor speaking out against the issue of body-shaming, I ask if she felt at all responsible for the pressure placed on women to look a certain way.
“Magazines certainly have power,” Shulman says, “and how you choose to use that power is one of the great privileges of editing, it seems to me. I don’t think magazines really have a responsibility to do anything other than that, to allow you to put your point of view across.
“At the end of the day,” Shulman continues, “I put colour in my hair, I wax my legs, so I am not exactly au naturel. But I feel that when you do so much to your face, cosmetically, that if you didn’t do it, you would be unrecognisable to yourself, I have a real problem with that. I mean, what happens if you get stranded somewhere and you can’t get the Botox and the fillers and suddenly your whole face changes?
“Once you start, you have to carry on. You know that with your own house,” she adds, mischievously. “You paint a wall, and suddenly the other wall looks terrible, and then suddenly the next room needs doing and you have to keep going. You will never think you have done enough.”
One of the main criticisms levelled at Shulman was that under her leadership, Vogue was a predominately white publication, in the case of both staff and models. One of the few black models to feature on a Shulman cover, Naomi Campbell recently took to social media to slam an in-the-office photograph of Vogue, showing an all-white team. Although, as a close friend of Enninful's, she is obviously biased, Campbell does have a point.
Campbell, Rihanna, Beyoncé and model Jourdan Dunn were the only models of colour to appear on the cover of the magazine during Shulman’s reign. And when the subject comes up, she doesn’t do herself any favours. “If you actually look at the demographics of it, only 3 per cent of the UK population is actually black, which is a very small percentage, and they are concentrated in London,” Shulman offers as a rather weak explanation.
“Racial diversity in fashion, I think, has been on a total roll for the past couple of years and, of course, for my successor, it is one of his pet things, because he is Ghanaian. So it is an interesting time to be able to introduce a whole new cast of characters.”
We move swiftly on. A few days prior to our meeting, Christopher Bailey had made the surprise announcement that he will be stepping down from his role as chief creative officer of Burberry in March. Given her insider knowledge, I am curious as to who Shulman thinks might succeed him – and whether she thinks the age of the big-name, figurehead creative director is a thing of the past?
“I don’t know whether Burberry feels it wants to have another big name designer. It could pull someone out of the design team, which is what happened at Gucci. Many people are looking at that model, because it obviously worked really well there. I think Burberry is having to balance investing in a person, because it is good for a brand, but not investing in them so much that the brand is vulnerable when they leave.
“Everyone is saying Phoebe [Philo, creative director at Celine], but I don’t know really. Maybe she doesn’t want to take on that huge job, but she might. On the whole, it helps to have some kind of figurehead designer. In this age, people like to have a person they can see behind it all. It’s harder when you have an anonymous team – even though most of the work is done by the team anyway – but if you want to go out and launch your product in a new market, to be able to take the creative director is a real help,” says Shulman.
I ask for her thoughts on another woman who has been at the receiving end of a fair amount of criticism of late – Maria Grazia Chiuri, creative director of Christian Dior. Chiuri is achieving encouraging sales for the French brand but is under fire for creating collections that are deemed far too commercial.
“I have absolute conviction that critical acclaim has nothing to do with sales,” says Shulman. “I don’t think what Maria is showing on the catwalk is the most interesting, but I gather it is selling incredibly well. Although, with the accessories, I think it’s probably more the J’adore Dior jewellery than the ‘I am a Feminist’ T-shirt. To be honest, I don’t know that feminist message is necessary for Dior, because none of the other Dior designers have done it.
“The Dior woman doesn’t want to be androgynous, she likes to indulge herself. That’s what Dior is very good at – touchable, want-able things. But that doesn’t quite tally with this feminist idea. I like Maria very much, and I think feminism is something she really believes in and feels very strongly about it, but marrying that ideal with what she is doing commercially at Dior is quite tricky.”
It is often said that you should never meet your heroes, and as I drive back from Sharjah, I am ever so slightly inclined to agree. Shulman is a woman who refused to conform to stereotypes of what a female editor should look like, and refused to endorse cosmetic surgery – and yet, she comes across as anything but a feminist. She’s also a woman who claims to believe in diversity, but only sort of. She may well have shaped the thinking of an entire generation, but today, disappointingly, she just comes across as slightly out-of-touch.